Mirror's Edge: Catalyst - Parkour Fun with a Hint of Corporate Opression
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a pleasant surprise simply for existing at all. That the fresh and exhilarating concepts found within the original Mirror’s Edge were getting a second breath of life filled me with hope. I remember EA and DICE shouting boldly at Catalyst’s announcement, “There won’t be any gunplay,” which suggested they had been listening to the criticisms of the first game and were heading in the right direction. As the game came closer to release and more details were unveiled, my hopes eroded into cautious optimism.
What created this good feels recession was the announcement the game would utilize an open world. An open world first-person free-running parkour game sounds good on paper, but we’re also living in an era of disposable open worlds. Open worlds that are mostly empty and only serve as hubs for disconnected, mundane, and poorly designed minigames. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst in my eyes could have gone one of two routes. Either the route of MGSV where the open world is an integral tool for the gameplay itself, or be an open world that distracted from the gameplay. However, it seems the universe conspires to make my predictions incorrect as Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s open world is mix of the two.
The world itself is smartly designed, for the most part. The world is built with parkour action in mind. There are plenty of pipes to slide under, gaps to jump over, and wires to zip across. It somehow provides this playground while feeling purposefully constructed to guide the player towards something, like missions or side activities. Most importantly, there is a lot less clutter on the ground for the player to get stuck on, which was a common annoyance in the original game. It’s a world where traversal is a joy in itself. In fact, there were many moments where I ignored all story and side activities just to go for a run. It feels freeing, which is exactly the feeling you want in a parkour game and an open world game.
So by virtue of traversal being the games main hook, the open world is at least fun. It’s worth noting story missions mostly take place inside buildings to provide the linear, forward motion of the first game. The world only gets its time to shine with the side activities littered about. These side activities are mostly slight alterations of one main objective – get to a point as fast as possible. It is a game based around parkour - a discipline defined by getting to places quickly, so this is as expected.
Time trials represent the gameplay distilled to its purest form. Mastering the mechanics and finding faster routes in the environment to achieve a three star time rating feels rewarding. A trial and error mentality is key. At some point It helps to stop thinking of them as races against time and more like exploration puzzles.
The other side activities adding objectives on top of this purer experience feel a bit clumsy. There are courier missions that are just time trials with a story. In a gameplay sense, nothing much has changed except there is no rating at the end, one must simply complete the objective in time to feel satisfied and move on. The downside is a voice over accompanying the player throughout their run to explain the importance of the package they carry. This builds character to the world the first time you hear it, but due to the trial and error nature of these missions, you’ll end up hearing it a lot. It becomes repetitive and annoying. What’s more, is if you fail these missions, the mission giver will yell at you and tell you what a bad job you did. That’s always fun, right. No, it’s the opposite of right. It’s wrong. It’s not fun.
Distraction missions are essentially the same thing, but instead of running through points, you have to run through detachments of roof cops. The potential of these missions is easy to see. It could combine the game’s first person melee combat with the parkour action, something the story missions do quite well, but the lack of time makes it more strategically sound to avoid contact as much as possible.
When it comes to my assertion side activities are a distraction, I’ll suggest Mirror’s Edge does them right. They expand on the gameplay outside of the story. They’re hit or miss in terms of quality, but they fit. There’re definitely needles distractions present, however. The biggest, most world encompassing are collectable data chips. They don’t provide much of anything but I often found myself breaking the flow of my runs to grab them. By contrast, there is another set of collectables that are just glowing orbs. To collect these, you run through them. So, you see them, you alter your route slightly to get them, and keep running. Much smoother than having to stop what you’re doing and grab the things because all the things must be grabbed.
In this new vision of Mirror’s Edge there are smart improvements and additions to parkour itself. The most immediate updates are springboard jumps allowing the player to launch off of small obstacles if they time their jump correctly. A success is marked with an ever satisfying “boosh” or “ping” noise. The little things tend to be the sweetest.
The bigger update though is a grappling hook that can be used to pull obstacles down, pull the player up, or swing the player across gaps like Spider-Man. I feel this grappling hook takes away from the parkour fantasy - as if all athletic actions should come from the character. Nevertheless, it’s fun, and awesome, and cool.
The grappling hook does provide a major flaw for the early game. It’s not immediately unlocked, which blocks access to areas. That’s fine. Plenty of games control the pace of exploration this way. The problem is found in many of the side activities. There is more than one occasion during a time trial where I banged my head on a wall trying to get a three star rating, only to realize it’s impossible until new abilities are unlocked. It would have made sense for the side activities making use of the hook to appear after getting the hook, but we evidently don’t live in a sensible world.
Similarly, progression mechanics were added to the formula which feel unnecessary and bolted on. The player has to unlock moves that the player had from the start in the original Mirror’s Edge. Of course this is a reimagining, but it still seems silly essential tools like a coil or the springboard jump have to be unlocked. Not every game needs a progression system, and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a good example of one. They’re supposed to be designed to keep a player engaged and feel as if they’re building something, but here it feels like the player is fixing something that’s broken.
There is also a big push for social features present in the game. Mirror’s Edge isn’t a big enough brand for everyone in a friend group to get the game and race each other’s ghosts, or build challenges, or have eachother hack billboards. It seems as if this social integration was made because other games have it or perhaps EA actually expects Mirror’s Edge to magically become a big phenomenon. Either way, it would be dead weight even if it weren’t out of touch with reality.
The story comes across a bit odd for a fan of the first game. It’s a reimagining, so the events of the original game don’t matter, but many of the ideas from that story are taken and changed to make something familiar but functionally very different. Like its predecessor, the world of Mirror’s Edge is a squeaky clean corporate dystopia. However, the idea is expanded on with a backstory. Evidently there was an apocalyptic, society destroying war. Society was rebuilt by a collectivist group and taken over by corporations championing personal achievement. Inequality and the emergence of a caste system prompted resistance, which prompted heavy law enforcement and surveillance, which prompted riots, which killed the player character’s parents. Faith Conner’s is taken in and raised by a guy named Noah, who leads a group of runners who take courier missions across the cities rooftops to avoid the surveillance state. In the original game, his name was Merc. So you see, much like the first game, but slightly different with some extra sprinkles on top.
This attitude extends to the aesthetics as well. It’s still full of bright contrasting colors, but there’s more flair around the edges - the Mirror’s Edges. Cyberpunk influences were introduced to the games look. There are a lot more lights and lasers strewn about the world. It can make the art a bit busy at times, but it works, and I’m always a fan of transitional futures - the kind of future where flying cars and ground cars exists simultaneously.
These cyberpunk additions also lead the story’s themes to deal heavier with wealth inequality than the previous game, which didn’t deal with them at all. It only uses the subject to cause conflict in the world. The game doesn’t have anything to say on the matter. Anytime a character talks about it, it sounds forced or brain dead simple. The game uses it as a tool to build their characters, not to build a statement. It’s always disappointing when games use topics like that but fail to do anything meaningful with them.
If the game is trying to say anything it’s that political extremism is bad. The game demonstrates this with terrorism - the straight up blowing up buildings kind. The player will be running to the next objective and there’ll just be an explosion seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a successfully shocking portrayal of random violence. Terrorism is bad is a much safer and easier subject to tackle, but something is better than nothing.
All of this is just background noise, though. The plot is more focused on Faith trying to obtain a painting her mom made. This painting is in the hands of a crime lord she happens to be in debt to for reasons not explained in the game. According to loading screens, you can find out about it in a comic book. Which is dumb. You shouldn’t have to buy secondary media to get the whole picture of the story in the primary media. I did anyway ... because I’m dumb. It’s inessential, by the way. Don’t worry about it. Still dumb though.
The plot does do some interesting things here and there, particularly with the role of Faith’s sister being completely altered from a rescue mission into too predictable mystery of whether or not she survived the riots. She did … spoilers. However, it’s paced in a scattered, disconnected way. One minute Faith will be trying to get her painting, the next she’ll be helping out the radical leftists, or maybe she’ll help out her runner buddies. It’s all connected and makes sense, but it feels as if it’s constantly starting and stopping. It seems almost as if they have too many extra threads and they’re not sure how to weave them together. It’s an enjoyable adventure, but a little focus can go a long way - a statement that can be used to describe nearly every aspect of the game.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is a solid sequel/ reboot that fixes many of the problems the original game had, adds some cool new features, and generally expands on the core concept of parkour fun. It’s a better game, but it doesn’t feel as special. It has a different atmosphere. The original felt bold and new, but with unnecessary social features and an emphasis on its open world, Catalyst feels a bit bogged down by dreams of being a commercial hit. I can’t blame them for that, but the result is a good game lacking the spirit of its predecessor.